I Suffer From Panic Attacks, But Won't Let Them Destroy My Life Or Work

Everyone gets nervous, but there are ways to control the onset of stifling fear. One CEO reveals how she keeps anxiety in check during stressful situations.

I had my first panic attack at 19.

It was in the middle of a presentation for my internship. As I stood in front of a panel of the company's executives and all my fellow interns, something happened. I started to get lightheaded as I felt all their eyes on me, I started to shake and I froze. I was no longer the confident breezy person I often am. I was terrified.

I could hear my best friend in the program quietly whispering, "breathe." I managed to make it through the presentation, although I was absolutely positive I was going to pass out. I didn't. After it was over, I went into the bathroom and cried.

This can be the standard panic scenario for anyone who deals with anxiety on a regular basis. My second attack arrived with my grandmother, the third with a boy I had a crush on. Seven years later I know my trigger scenarios, what makes me anxious, and some coping mechanisms. This doesn't make the anxiety beast--like a shadow, behind you but always attached--any easier. And it can be especially debilitating in a professional scenario.

Anxiety in the workplace is a bitch. And the more you try to suppress it, the worse it can get. It is estimated that about 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, suffers from some form of anxiety disorder. Trying to explain a panic attack to someone for whom anxiety is not an issue is like speaking in a foreign language.

You really think your world is caving in. You're going to have a heart attack. And no matter how many times it happens, it still feels like the world is falling out from your butt every. Single. Time. Writing this, in fact, is making me a bit queasy.

So what are you supposed to do when it drifts into your work life and career? I'm lucky in that when I started my own company I had to pitch myself and my services constantly. I still do--about three times a day. Doing the things that scare you more often makes them less scary.

Tell people around you

There are a lot of theories about how to handle anxiety. For me, sometimes it helps to let the people around you know you're nervous or anxious. If you don't want to say it in so many words, say you're feeling like you need some support around a particular meeting. More people have anxiety than you realize, and sometimes you need support.

Eat something

Panic also can be mimicked by too much caffeine and not enough food. Hypoglycemia is the same feeling as panic. Make sure it's not both.

Know your triggers

When I spoke to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, she mentioned that speaking is a common anxiety for more introverted people (and just most people in general) because it's not a natural practice. I signed up for Toastmasters and I look forward to shaking in front of a group of strangers who probably feel the same.

It's less obvious than you think

While you might feel like your world is caving in, people can't really tell. So much anxiety stems from what others think. I was afraid I'd seem weak, or heaven forbid, not as composed as I'd like.

You don't have to go it alone

I didn't. It depends on what works for you--therapy, medication, doing it enough times that it becomes less scary and the puke feeling goes away. Your anxiety, at work or otherwise, can become a smaller shadow as you step away from the bright light of fear.

But remember, our shadows are us, and we must learn to live with ourselves--happily, productively, and without worrying about what others might think.

--Meredith Fineman is the CEO of FinePoint digital PR. You can read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter at @meredithfineman.

[Paper Bag: Mega Pixel via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • Tammy London

    Thanks for sharing. I feel your pain. After 25 years in sales, speaking, consulting, you'd think you'd get over it. You just have to learn to manage it!

  • Anne A

     Not a lot to prevent panic attacks either beyond knowing triggers & taking medicines.

    Let's not play the oppression olympics game, it's only Monday ffs...